Why does the United States suddenly have so many friends in Asia?

Hillary Clinton has urged Asia’s smaller countries to rally around the United States. She has offered to mediate prickly territorial disputes between Asian allies and Beijing, and is trumpeting the early stages of an embryonic U.S.-India axis to thwart Chinese excesses in Asia. This is giving the United States some newfound credibility in Asia, where ...

Evan Vucci/AFP/Getty Images
Evan Vucci/AFP/Getty Images
Evan Vucci/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton has urged Asia's smaller countries to rally around the United States. She has offered to mediate prickly territorial disputes between Asian allies and Beijing, and is trumpeting the early stages of an embryonic U.S.-India axis to thwart Chinese excesses in Asia. This is giving the United States some newfound credibility in Asia, where President Barack Obama begins a four-nation visit on Saturday. Leaving domestic trouble behind him, Obama will find Japan cooling down in a dispute with the United States over a Marine air base; the Vietnamese negotiating a deal to obtain U.S. nuclear power technology; and the Philippines thinking about turning to the United States as a go-between in its dispute with China over the Spratley Islands.

The forces behind this activity are not new -- Japan and the other rising tigers in Asia have been increasingly worried as China becomes less huggy and cuddly in the wake of a financial crisis that has accelerated its rise as a global power. But what's triggered the sudden upsurge now of tete-a-tetes, the type that have driven China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, to glare at the foreign minister of Singapore, George Yong-Boon Yeo, and pointedly declare, "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact"?

Hillary Clinton has urged Asia’s smaller countries to rally around the United States. She has offered to mediate prickly territorial disputes between Asian allies and Beijing, and is trumpeting the early stages of an embryonic U.S.-India axis to thwart Chinese excesses in Asia. This is giving the United States some newfound credibility in Asia, where President Barack Obama begins a four-nation visit on Saturday. Leaving domestic trouble behind him, Obama will find Japan cooling down in a dispute with the United States over a Marine air base; the Vietnamese negotiating a deal to obtain U.S. nuclear power technology; and the Philippines thinking about turning to the United States as a go-between in its dispute with China over the Spratley Islands.

The forces behind this activity are not new — Japan and the other rising tigers in Asia have been increasingly worried as China becomes less huggy and cuddly in the wake of a financial crisis that has accelerated its rise as a global power. But what’s triggered the sudden upsurge now of tete-a-tetes, the type that have driven China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, to glare at the foreign minister of Singapore, George Yong-Boon Yeo, and pointedly declare, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact”?

My own answer is rare earth elements, the 17 strategic metals and minerals on which China holds a near global monopoly. Over the last six weeks or so, China has appeared to some to be flexing its muscles by imposing an embargo of shipments of the elements first to Japan, and then to Europe and the United States. As we’ve said here before, we may never get to the bottom of truly why the rare-earth flow stopped, but we do know the impact: in part, the alarm reflected in the first paragraph of this piece. As a result, Beijing has ordered its customs officials to resume the shipments.

But what portion of the Lilliputian-type behavior we are seeing is a result of the rare earths hullabaloo? Were rare earths the tipping point? For some thoughts on the question, I called around to China watchers. Charles Freeman, an expert on the country at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that in one sense rare earths are just the latest in a series of divisive issues that have cropped up regarding China, but that this time Beijing crossed an invisible line. “There is the perception that rare earths are strategically important, and this is too much,” Freeman said. “This is directed at the defense establishment.” Given how strong China has become so fast, does it care any longer about international opinion? Freeman replied:

“There is a sizeable part of the Chinese bureaucracy that does care about international public opinion. But part of the Internet and of the government have caught a serious case of hubris. It is reminiscent of U.S. public opinion after the Berlin Wall fell. It was, ‘Why should we listen? We are the big dog. Everyone else better get in line.’ It’s a little bit of, ‘Now is our time.'”

This appears to be the perception that Obama will find when he attends the G-20 summit in Seoul next week.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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